Readers, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and other fine books, has written a new—and truly remarkable—novel about a prosperous family of Philadelphia botanists in the heydey of plant exploration, the 1800s. I have never read a more horticulturally based novel, and rarely such an intelligent and exquisitely written one. I can only get you started here with the beginning of the very first chapter—and hope it hooks you. (In respect of all our readers, I should note that the novel does include open depictions of one woman’s sexuality.) Alma Whitaker, the novel’s main character, is born in the prologue. The first section, as you’ll see, is about her father, Henry.
For the first five years of her life, Alma Whittaker was indeed a mere passenger in the world—as we all are passengers in such early youth—and so her story was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting, beyond the fact that this homely toddler passed her days without illness or incident, surrounded by a degree of wealth nearly unknown in the America of that time, even within elegant Philadelphia. How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again. For it was no more common in 1800 than it has ever been for a poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city, and so the means by which Henry Whittaker prospered are indeed interesting—although perhaps not noble, as he himself would have been the first to confess.
Henry Whittaker was born in 1760 in the village of Richmond, just up the Thames from London. He was the youngest son of poor parents who had a few too many children already. He was raised in two small rooms with a floor of beaten earth, with an almost adequate roof, with a meal on the hearth nearly every day, with a mother who did not drink and a father who did not beat his family—by comparison to many families of the day, in other words, a nearly genteel existence. His mother even had a private spot of dirt behind the house in which to grow larkspurs and lupines, decoratively, like a lady. But Henry was not fooled by larkspurs and lupines. He grew up sleeping one wall away from the pigs, and there was not a moment in his life when poverty did not humiliate him.
Sigh. I really can’t run more of the excerpt here. (There is more in GreenPrints No.96, Winter 2013-14.) But this is one unique and powerful book. I do hope you’ll read the tale of this singular woman botanist—and that you’ll love it as much as I did. – Pat